– The Power Of Culture – Gérard Prunier is a writer and researcher on socio-political issues, specialising in the Horn of Africa on which he has published numerous articles and books. Born in Paris and studied both in France and in the US, Prunier received a PhD in African History in 1981 from the University of Paris. In 1984, he joined the CNRS scientific institution in Paris as a researcher. He later became Director of the French Centre for Ethiopian Studies in Addis Ababa, serving from 2001 until 2006. He is fluent in his native French, as well as English and Spanish. He also has good knowledge of Italian and German, and his mastery of the Juba Arabic and Swahili, direct knowledge of the Horn of African countries enabled him to deal with all the different and contradictory aspects of the region and its culture. Gérard Prunier’s books include The Rwanda Crisis: History of a Genocide, Darfur: The Ambiguous Genocide, From Genocide to Continental War: The “Congolese” Conflict and the Crisis of Contemporary Africa, Understanding Contemporary Ethiopia: Monarchy, Revolution and the Legacy of Meles Zenawi. In an exclusive interview with the Ethiopia Observer, Prunier graciously agreed to share some memories and insights from his amazing career. The interview was conducted in French and this is a translation.
You first came to Ethiopia during the Emperor’s time. Right?
I first came to Ethiopia in 1973. Then I was part of Canadian University Service Overseas in Uganda. However, I was obliged to flee in 1972 during the fighting which followed Milton Obote’s and Yoweri Museveni (who was then an unknown person) attempt to overthrow Idi Amin Dada. The context was that in January 1971, while Obote was on visit abroad, Major-General Idi Amin overthrew Obtote’s government and installed a military regime. Obote and members of his party, Uganda People’s Congress (UPC) took refuge in Dar es Salaam under the protection of Julius Nyerere. In 1972 Obote along with a force of exiled Ugandan troops launched an invasion against Amin but proved a total failure. Id Amin unleashed a ferocious attack, using the people of West Nile people. It was not a pleasant situation. The Indian community, around 30,000 in Uganda were brutally expelled during which I nearly got killed twice, just on my way to the market. Like them, I became political refugee in Tanzania as a Ugandan. I told the Tanzanian immigration authorities that I am not Ugandan. They told me being a refugee was the same thing. The Tanzanians hated so much Idi Amin. I then worked at a variety of survival jobs in Tanzania. That was around then along with my wife and kids embarked on travel throughout Eastern Africa using only local transportation, matatu, or buses, all the way to Egypt.
That over landing trip from Dar es Salaam, crisscrossing Kenya brought you to Moyale and then to Addis Ababa?
Yes, it was kind of hard. Because we were travelling with little budget. And then in Ethiopia it was the notorious 1973 famine which brought about the fall of the Empire. We suffered for lack of food until we reached Hagere Mariam. I mean I recall eating only one tinned sardine and a slice of bread in ten days. I could not walk and I saw three suns in the sky. My wife and I were scared that our kids would die. They were eight and ten years old. We had literally nothing to eat on the way.
At the same time, I was fascinated by the country. It was a strange country, everything was different. I was woefully ignorant about the culture. I just came from the great lake regions, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, a world completely different. First, I had to learn. I had not studied that in Paris. Ethiopia was not part of our study. No, not at all (laugh). So it was a new discovery for me. Everything was different. The alphabet, calendar, traditional dress, social behaviour of the people. It was extraordinarily archaic part of the world that had an incredible appeal. I quickly understood and adapt to the local conditions, both to the climate and culture, entertaining close contacts with Ethiopians from all political viewpoints. The travel allowed me to understand the central, provincial and local levels of government and local factional politics, the brutality of the local balabats against tenants. How they showed no sympathy to the peasants, beating them. When I saw the revolution after a year, I was not surprised at all.
We continued our journey to Addis Ababa. My wife and my children flew from Addis Ababa back to France. But I continued my reconnoitring journey to northern Ethiopia, passing through Gondar, Axum. And then I found myself in Eritrea. I went up to Asmara. I stuck there for some time because my money was stolen. I tried to understand things, the Eritrean issue. Through local contacts, I approached members of the various factions of the ELF, particularly the ELF/ PLF, which later became the winning EPLF. They were no merged yet. They were fighting each other. When they merged, they changed their name to the Eritrean Peoples Liberation Front. I went as far as I was to Tesenei, Barentu. Some segments of new military regime, like Teferi Benti were intensifying the repression.